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Birchbark Blog

Brief lives, long books

Louise Erdrich - Tuesday, December 18, 2007
This morning my daughter was late to school -- cause listed on the sign-in sheet "severe maternal inertia". There was not room on the sheet to continue, "as the result of trying to finish The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz". So I just wrote "literary hangover." I was up too late, but that's what a richly thronged and impeccably written book will do.

I also had to finish A Shadow in the City, Charles Bowden, a non-fiction-fiction-crossed portrait of an undercover narc, before I could be useful or attentive to anything else in this life. There is a great deal of violence in the book, but mainly it is that hardest thing to write -- emotional violence. A man's work becomes betrayal, and then betrayal becomes self betrayal. A portrait of a man becoming alive to the truth of his singed existence.

The amnesia of Xmas has erased about two weeks since I wrote the two paragraphs above. I just sat down at my computer again (actually, my daughter's phenomenal Cube, the T-Bird of computers) and realized that I had not posted these comments.

Astoundingly, the world of Charles Bowden exists in the same dimension as the world of Brother Benet Tvedten and Blue Cloud Abbey. Driving to North Dakota from Sioux Falls in late December, we took an exit off I-29 and stopped in fresh snow to visit the abbey. Brother Benet autographed one of his books for us -- The View From A Monastery. As it is the first book I've read in the new year, I hope that some of what it contains -- gentle humor, hard-won tolerance, grounded spirituality, will rub off on me. I imagine that many people visit the monks and priests at the abbey hoping that a bit of transcendence and peace will rub off there, too. Few can stay. The abbey is both lively and echoing with the portraits of lives in the book -- vexed, funny, joyous, ordinary and yet marvelous.

Wading Through the Reads

Louise Erdrich - Wednesday, December 12, 2007
I apologize for the bad pun. Brian Baxter has had a good influence on me in every other way except the puns. His (extremely tolerant) wife woke early on a muggy morning and said, "The air is humid." Brian answered, "but to forgive, divine." Not easy to contend with.

Brian did tell me to read THE DOG SAYS HOW, by Kevin Kling. In gratitude for the happy sort of anguish and out loud laughter I've experienced reading this book, Brian can pun at will. My reaction is very simple: THE DOG SAYS HOW is the book I'm giving my father this Christmas. There is always one that stands out. This is it.

I have a pile of advanced reader's copies, as well as books that I read because the writer was at the store, and some that I've read because the writer at the store mentioned a particular writer, and others, well, because they just filtered in somehow.

First, fresh as the day's news, I have a book that is not light holiday reading. (Don't stop viewing this blog -- I'll get to the pleasure reads.) But I have to talk about this book -- a must read on my list. OATH BETRAYED. Torture, Medical Complicity, and the War on Terror, by a University of Minnesota professor of medicine, Steven H. Miles, M.D. (Random House).

At last we are hearing more about torture after the destruction of CIA videotapes of interrogations of detainees after 9/11. Our government is really afraid now -- if there is another tape around that someone just forgot to erase we could have another Abu Ghraib debacle. This is the Limbo Administration -- How Low Can You Go? Besides the reference obvious to Catholics. Questions: why didn't the prison doctors at Abu Ghraib report the fact that their "patients" were being tortured? Why did they become complicit? Don't doctors adhere to something quite marvelously humane -- the Hippocratic Oath, 500 B.C., "I will use regimens for the benefit of the ill in accordance with my ability and my judgement, but from what is to their harm or injustice I will keep them." Yes, and yet there were doctors at Abu Ghraib, and there are doctors who no doubt were complicit with the CIA in questioning detainees. How can this be? How can there be doctors who dispassionately note the suffering of another human and decide whether they are fit to stand another session of torture? OATH BETRAYED should be required reading for all medical students and military doctors. More than that, as we have now become a country that tortures, we all need to read this book. We are all complicit if we do not speak out. Don't be afraid. Don't turn away. What our government has condoned is a stain on all of us, and besides, doesn't work. To speak out, google Center for the Victims of Torture and learn how you can be heard on this issue.

Now for an injection of hope. LISTENING IS AN ACT OF LOVE, Dave Isay, stories told by people all over this country and gathered by the tenderhearted and oracular Storycorps Project. This is one of those books that puts a lump in your throat. A book safe enough to set in your grandmother's hands, and yet it is filled with intelligent sweetness and you can enjoy it, too.

Another book about hope -- published in 1998. GAVIOTAS, by Alan Weisman. (Chelsea Green) The author did a reading at our bookstore when he was touring for his stunning THE WORLD WITHOUT US (to my mind the best nonfiction book of this year). He sent a book of his because he thought my daughter and I would like it. Like it? Holy shit-powered cookstoves! This is a tremendously illuminating story. GAVIOTAS is a community built in remotest Columbia by tinkering visionaries who decided to create a sustainable civilization out of what was at hand. The result is a miraculous place. Imagine a solar powered hospital, a well pump operated by children on a see-saw, and yes, those amazing cookstoves hooked up to a cow barn, as well as a forest of millions of planted trees that generates a nascent rain forest as its understory. This book reads like a thriller -- I was up all night until I could finish it because I knew I could not bear it if the dream was destroyed by the unbearable anguish of Columbia's recent history -- but Gaviotas lives. I went online to find out more about GAVIOTAS. I have ordered the book for the bookstore --again, it was published in 1998, by Chelsea Green -- a book and a dream whose time has come.

Sometimes I read the book of an author who has blurbed a book I like -- in this case I got everything I could by Charles Bowden because he blurbed GAVIOTAS. I began with BLOOD ORCHID -- An Unnatural History of America. Let's see . . . my powers of description are really strained here -- what can I say. I realized that to put Blood Orchid and anything by Mary Daly together on my bookshelf might cause some sort of methane reaction. The whole house could blow. Blood Orchid is a turbo-charged, hell bent, gloriously venomous, tender and oddly whore-avid screed on what our country was becoming back in 1995. It is all that Charles Bowden saw then but it is more pertinant than anything I've read about our country recently. Imagine Hunter S. Thompson looking at the United States only with a heart full of pure and desperate yearning. As I read the book, my left cheek hurt and I realized that my feminist card (which I carry at all times in my jeans pocket) had caught on fire. All women may not like Bowden's references to us -- but still I read on until the wires crossed in my brain last night. I put it down but will pick it up again tonight to read with 1491 -- more about 1491 later -- these are the perfect two books to read together if you can't help breaking your own heart now and then with the truth.

To mend that heart -- again, THE DOG SAYS HOW, by Kevin Kling.

From the advanced readers pile -- TO BE PUBLISHED IN FEBRUARY 2008: RESISTANCE, by Owen Sheers, a Nan A. Talese book from Doubleday. One of those great IF premises -- IF in 1944 D-Day failed, Russia fell, and the Germans crossed into Great Britain -- what would happen to a tiny farming community in Wales once their men left to join the resistance and a German intelligence unit entered to find a rare map? I know, the rare map thing . . . but this is an very good novel, well imagined from the moment a woman touches the absent shape of her husband's body on the horsehair mattress beside her and knows her world is changed. I did read the entire book . . . but haven't yet absorbed HOW TO TALK ABOUT BOOKS YOU HAVEN"T READ, by Pierre Bayard. Yet I can say -- this book is an excellent skim. I plan to page completely through it again when I have more time. Yes, I'll get to it again after I read Percival Everett's harrowing new book, THE WATER CURE, published by Graywolf Press.

Also -- not yet published: Jhumpa Lahiri's UNACCUSTOMED EARTH, which has a lovely, quiet story in the beginning, and THE PALACE OF ILLUSIONS by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.

Still on the reading table: THE UNREDEEMED CAPTIVE, by John Demos, and more by Charles Bowden, whose books actually seem alive with sinister joy -- is that the smell of scorching pages downstairs or my buffalo chili burning, again?

Talk about dread and love -- the holidays are here. Why do they always turn up? Why can't we just lay around and eat and read whatever falls into our hands?

And yet. To give is human. To give books, divine. Luckily, my daughter just turned up with a recommendation. She likes IGRAINE THE BRAVE (for a young 1-3 grade reader) by Cornelia Funke.

Or for all ages: THE DOG SAYS HOW, by Kevin Kling.

Sherman Alexie Congratulations from local Indigerati

Louise Erdrich - Wednesday, October 17, 2007
Sherman Alexie's latest novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part time Indian is nominated for a National Book Award, and it is currently number three on the New York Times Bestseller list for young adult books. Congratulations from Birchbark Books and thank you, Sherman, for a terrific birthday reading. You came perilously near uplifting. And to the person who coined the word Indigerati in Sherman's presence here in Minneapolis or Saint Paul, another thanks.

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